Very public cancer journey inspires thousands to donate

Brian Fraser highlights the importance of blood and stem cell donation, as well as financial giving, even in his last days

February 23, 2021
Image of Brian Fraser with black glasses wearing an Ottawa Senators jersey and a backwards cap.

Brian sadly passed away on Feb.25, 2021, just a few days after the publication of this story. Our deepest condolences are with his friends and family.

About two years ago, Brian Fraser was in the control room of an Ottawa radio station where he worked as a technical producer, when he heard a story that inspired him to act.

Bill Carroll, host of CFRA’s morning show was interviewing a young, local woman who was desperately seeking a stem cell donor. She had come on the air to urge eligible Canadians between the ages of 17 and 35 to join Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell Registry.

Brian was 24 at the time and struck by the realization that he could potentially help save this woman’s life — or at least, the life of another patient like her. He went online the next day to start the process of joining the registry.

But before he got the chance to mail back his swab kit, Brian was unexpectedly diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

“I was devastated that things so quickly went from one extreme of me wanting to help save a life, to my life now needing to be saved,” he said.

Suddenly, Brian’s surroundings shifted from the radio booth to hospital beds, as he began treatment to try to get his blood cell counts back to normal.

But even as he faced his own battle with cancer, he found himself thinking about that undelivered swab kit. And just like that young woman whose story first inspired him, Brian began publicly sharing his own cancer journey, in the hope that he, too, could motivate others to make a difference.

He turned to social media to start sharing treatment updates and informative videos about blood cancer, emphasizing the importance of blood and stem cell donations for patients like him. And he was stunned and overwhelmed by the amount of support he received.

“I didn’t necessarily think my videos would make a big impact, but I felt compelled to share my journey,” he said. “I think [my posts] really ended up resonating with people because my message was a simple one: ‘Here’s something easy you can do that will impact patients like me directly.’”

Among the people touched by Brian’s story were some of his real-life heroes. An avid sports fan, Brian experienced an outpouring of messages from professional athletes including hockey legend Mario Lemieux, celebrated Paralympian Rick Hansen and NFL quarterback Drew Brees.

“People who have literally changed the world were all of a sudden saying I was changing the world ― it was just surreal,” Brian said.

Overwhelming surge of support crashes Canadian Blood Services website

For almost a year, Brian’s cancer remained chronic and manageable. Unfortunately, as the disease sometimes does, it morphed into acute lymphocytic leukemia in February 2020.

Brian’s treatment and chemotherapy regimen became much more aggressive in preparation for a stem cell transplant, and he began relying on regular transfusions of blood and platelets.

Then, in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was declared. Having experienced first-hand how the need for blood products never stops, Brian pushed harder than ever on his social media channels to encourage people to keep donating blood and blood components.

His public appeals landed him on CTV National News on March 30, 2020, where he was able to reach an even wider audience. Within just a few minutes of his interview with anchor Lisa Laflamme, Canadian Blood Services’ website experienced an unprecedented surge of activity from Canadians who had been touched by Brian’s story and rushed online to book appointments to donate blood.

“When I heard that my interview basically crashed your website, I honestly wept. I think it was maybe the most humbling thing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” said Brian.

“I never set out thinking I’d actually inspire people. I was just a young guy who worked on a radio show who was scared and needed blood and didn’t want to die.”

Just about a month later, in April 2020, Brian had a successful stem cell transplant and went into remission. For the next six months, things looked promising.

“I had found a perfect match [stem cell] donor, I was home, I was re-gaining weight and feeling good,” said Brian.

Unfortunately, in October 2020, the cancer returned, and it was more aggressive than ever. This time, Brian’s best option for treatment gave him just a one-in-four chance of surviving another year.

“The treatment was going to get harder and the results were not going to get better,” he said.

So with a heavy heart, Brian made the decision to discontinue treatments and focus instead on attaining the best possible quality of life for the time he has left. Because he had been so public about his experiences with cancer so far, Brian took to Twitter in early January 2021 to announce his decision.

Online hockey community raises almost $20K in honour of Brian

When Scott Simpson read Brian’s announcement on social media, his heart sank.

A fellow Ottawa Senators fan, Scott had been participating in online NHL hockey pools with Brian for several years and the two had become virtual friends. Scott had also been following Brian’s cancer journey closely through social media.

Scott had already registered to be a stem cell donor, but he wanted to do more to help honour Brian. He decided to pull together a small group of hockey fans to launch a fundraising campaign as a tribute to their friend.

“Once we heard about [Brian’s] decision, we wanted to do something for him that would properly honour his legacy as a huge [Ottawa] Senators fan for years to come,” said Scott.

When he approached Brian with the idea to hold an online fantasy hockey league in his honour, Brian was touched, and immediately suggested that any money raised through the campaign be donated to Canadian Blood Services.

How do financial donations to Canadian Blood Services help patients?

On Jan. 4, Scott launched The Fraser League through Canadian Blood Services’ do-it-yourself fundraising platform, and set the donation goal at $1,000.

Less than a week later, the 200 spots in the league had been filled and the campaign had raised more than $11,000. Organizers were also delighted to see that among the league’s participants was former Ottawa Senators forward Bobby Ryan.

Subsequent “money on the board” events (where hockey fans pledge a certain amount of money based on outcomes of their choice) inspired by The Fraser League, which were held when the Ottawa Senators faced the Toronto Maple Leafs on Jan. 15, have also helped to raise an additional $8,000 in Brian’s honour. More of these fundraising events are still being planned for the remainder of the 2020–2021 NHL season.

For Brian, the incredible response to these in-honour fundraising efforts has once again left him feeling overwhelmed.

“Seeing thousands of dollars come in from Canadians all over the country in support of patients like me … I can’t even begin to describe how touched and hugged I felt by the world,” he said.

Registration for the 2021 Fraser League is now closed, but the organizers are still encouraging donations to be made in honour of Brian.

Scott said he also plans to make this fundraising campaign an annual tradition, so that hockey fans can continue to add to Brian’s legacy for years to come.

‘The one thing I don’t want to do is disappear’

Since having to make the most difficult decision of his life, Brian is now focused on making the most of the time he has left.

Although he has had to come to terms with dying, he said he feels grateful for the gift of time that blood transfusions and stem cell transplants gave him and his family ― and of course, for the incredible support he has received from people across the country.

“Right now, I’m happy. I’m managing my pain and I feel pretty good for the most part. At this point, I’m focused on making new memories instead of clinging to old ones,” he said.

Brian is currently enjoying spending time at his family’s home in Brockville, Ont. with his parents, brothers and his cats. Of course, he’s also been watching lots and lots of hockey.

He’s managed to remain active on his social media channels and continues to build awareness about Canadian Blood Services (whenever he’s not posting his real-time reactions to Ottawa Senators games).

“The one thing I don’t want to do is disappear,” said Brian. “As much as people are telling me that I have changed their lives, I can’t even begin to describe the impact they’ve had on mine. It’s this support, this community, that keep me going.”

Ever humble, Brian may never fully understand his own incredible impact on patients across Canada.

Initially, he had hoped to save one life by becoming a stem cell donor. Two years later, he has likely helped to save hundreds ― if not thousands ― of patients, by inspiring people across the country to donate blood or stem cells, or to make a financial donation.

All spots in The Fraser League are currently full for the 2021 NHL season, but you can still make a financial donation in Brian’s honour by visiting the fundraising page.   

Those who are eligible can also honour Brian and help support patients by booking an appointment to donate blood or starting the registration process to become a stem cell donor.

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